Businesses are losing faith in exams - so what's the alternative?

Companies are adopting evidence-based assessment - so should schools, says Dan Sandhu.

by Dan Sandhu
Last Updated: 26 Aug 2015

The exams system in this country has not fundamentally changed in over a century. So it is little wonder that some of the UK’s biggest employers are now publicly stating their lack of confidence in results (if not going quite as far as MT did earlier this week in describing exams as ‘pointless regurgitation’).

The deficiencies in the current system are reported every year around results days: grade inflation, inaccuracies, appeals, inefficiencies, unfairness – the list goes on. Yet not only do the solutions exist, they have been in use all around us for years.

Everywhere outside the traditional academic route, in professions from accounting to medicine, IT to construction, career-shaping decisions are based on scientifically and technologically advanced methods of assessment. They give a more statistically reliable indicator of attainment and allow people to demonstrate the best of themselves without the stress and unfamiliarity of the pen-and-paper, exam hall environment.

The catch-all industry term for the type of measurement employers are calling for is ‘Evidence-Based Assessment (EBA).’ The critical difference is that old-fashioned exams are summative, whereas modern EBA is, by nature, formative. That is, it allows the student to learn, reflect and improve as they go along, with the evidence to prove it, rather than placing all their hopes on a compressed period of intensive testing at the end.

So how do we bridge the gap between what’s required in the world of work and what’s tested in schools and colleges? How do we focus on the skills and attributes that employers really want, and apply that to the education system?

Ironically, the schools want change as much as we do. Teachers would far rather be freed up to support learning, rather than having to teach to the test and cajoled into marking papers. The barrier, then, is simply the scale of the reform needed.

British school exams need nothing less than a complete overhaul – a cultural shift – to deliver what UK plc needs. The process of capturing evidence needs to be introduced right from the beginning of secondary school. This would give the system at least four years to bed in. The regulator Ofsted can act as a quality assurance body to ensure evidence is captured correctly, teachers are intervening at the right moments, and schools are addressing common skills gaps in a systematic, coherent manner (such as improving ongoing teacher training) rather than employers having to pick up the pieces by implementing their own tests.

All of this can and will be driven by the private sector. Big employers such as EY and PwC are openly announcing that they now ignore general qualifications in favour of their own in-house tests for applications to their graduate schemes. Other companies large and small must now stand up and shout in agreement.

For change to happen, the government does not even need to pump more investment into education – only to make better use of the existing investment. If the next generation are to contribute to our 21st century economy, their destinies should not depend on a 19th century exam.

Dan Sandhu is CEO of Digital Assess

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